“A Quiet Place”: UNCWISHes and Dream Logic.

This column spoils John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place”. (Not to worry, though. The screenwriters got there first.)

You

Have

Been

Warned.

 

A monster movie hailed as serious drama. Ninety-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Deeply affecting.” “A superb exercise in understated terror”. “A bold experiment in fear.” And to top it all off, it’s the beloved brainchild of  the beloved “Jim”. You know, from The Office.

I really wanted to like this one.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

I did, too, at first. The layered, multidimensional, never-quite-silence of the movie’s soundscape grabs you from the first scene. The sight of the Abbott Family creeping through the aftermath of whatever wiped out the rest of us effectively builds suspense and curiosity. And the rapid, ruthless, richly-deserved extermination of that noisy snot-nosed too-stupid-to-live larva had me cheering inside: Yes! Consequences! I thought. No last-second rescue! The little fucker gets what he deserved![1]

Five minutes in— wholesome ‘Murrican nuclear family focus notwithstanding— you knew this was no Spielberg movie.

But the further we got into “A Quiet Place” the less goddamned sense it made.

I’m not talking about obvious things like the fact we never find out where the monsters come from. Another Weyland-Yutani PR fiasco, vermin escaped from the bilge of a visiting UFO— I’m willing to accept their unexplained appearance as a basic conceit of the movie. (Although given the amount of time we spend lovingly panning over whiteboards and old newspapers, it wouldn’t have killed them to at least headline a theory or two.) I’m talking about contradictions and inconsistencies that sink the plot, if not the whole damn premise. I’m not talking about just suspending disbelief, I’m talking about (as someone once said in reference to one of my own novels) breaking its neck and hanging it until it’s dead.

Like f’rinstance:

  • These nightmare creatures have such incredibly good hearing that they can hear rusty hinges creaking outside in a grain silo 500 meters away— and yet somehow they can’t hear a baby crying three meters away in the same room.
  • Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    They can rip a gaping hole through the corrugated steel wall of a grain silo (silently enough to avoid alerting the children trapped inside, so as to not deprive us of an upcoming jump scare), but can’t get into the cab of a Ford pick-up with the windows rolled up.

  • Or maybe that ragged, torn hole in the silo was there all along in plain view, and the children trapped inside were just too dumb to notice until it was filled by a nightmare creature.
  • Anybody living in a depopulated post-apocalyptic landscape patrolled by unkillable nightmare creatures with incredibly sensitive hearing would actually choose to have a baby in the first place, counting on a couple of mattresses to keep the sound down. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more mindlessly strident pro-life message outside of the GOP.
  • A mother who does choose to pup under those conditions— and who then finds herself holding a crying baby in the basement while an unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly sensitive hearing stalks around upstairs— chooses not to offer a nipple to that baby (I mean, why else do babies cry?), but instead hands it off to her twelve-year-old to deal with. (I admit I thought she was being pretty clever at first— way to go, Evelyn, you’re getting rid of the squawling infant and the annoying adolescent in one unkillable-nightmare-creature bite!— but no. It was just bad writing.)
  • These unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly acute hearing (can we just call them UNCWISHes from now on?) aren’t magic— there’s no reason to think they can scale sheer walls or punch through the walls of a reinforced bunker, and we know that they can’t hear softer sounds masked by louder ones— but the Abbotts stay for over a year in their toothpick-and-clapboard farmhouse rather than moving to more solid digs (of which surely there can’t be any shortage, the rest of Humanity being dead and all). Or even setting up camp next to a noisy waterfall.
  • Everyone else is as stupid as the Abbotts. We know there are at least a few other survivors out there— we see their rooftop bonfires in the distance early in the movie, shining like low-budget Torches o’Gondor— and they don’t seem to have moved on either. And if people have been able to stick it out this long in farmhouses, surely others must have been lucky enough to be inside reinforced, UNCWISH-proof structures (what about those deep-rock missile silos in the Rockies, for example?), which leads one to conclude that there must be other pockets or survivors with access to broadcast technology. Why hasn’t Lee Abbott been able to raise any of them on the radio? And speaking of Lee Abbott…
  • Lee Abbott is a dick. Why else would he ban his deaf daughter from his basement lab, where he divides his time between checking the shortwave and trying to improvise a replacement for her broken hearing aid? At one point she explicitly demands to know why she’s not allowed downstairs, and gets no answer. Turns out, there at the very end, the only reason he wouldn’t let her downstairs is because that’s also where he kept the collection of newspaper headlines and whiteboard scribblings he used to try and figure out how to defeat these damned UNCWISHes, and once she lays eyes on that trove it takes her about thirty seconds to figure out what her Dad couldn’t in over a year. And you don’t want her doing that until the very last moment. (Okay, so Lee Abbott is a dumb dick.)
  • Everybody else on the planet is even dumber than the Abbotts. Because nobody, anywhere, apparently wondered if a blind predator who relied on incredibly sensitive hearing might not be vulnerable to acoustic attacks. On the whole fucking planet, no scientists, no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, no soldiers or back-yard tinkerers or hearing-aid makers ever thought Hey, maybe we can jam them up with sound until fifteen-year-old Regan Abbott starts twiddling the dials more than a year after Armaggeddon? No helicopter gunships ever hung in the sky, safely out of UNCWISH jumping range, blaring out infrasonics alongside Ride of the Valkyries?
  • Oh, and look! Turns out once they open their faces at you, you can just take ’em down with shotguns! Maybe we should have tried shooting into those giant soft-looking tuba-sized earholes they kept flapping open while they were hunting us…
This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

Some of these gaffes are so glaring that I’m half-convinced I must have dozed off at a crucial moment and missed some important bit of exposition. (I don’t think I did, though— and that uncertainty isn’t great enough to make me pay for a second viewing.) It’s as though Krasinski, having never seen an “Alien” movie, woke up from a scary dream about fearsome eyeless creatures with big teeth and thought Man, if only I could make a movie that evoked that sense of dread. And he did—the movie works, on that purely visceral level. It really does. The childbirth scene had me on the edge of my seat as much as anyone else.

But it’s also as though, if anyone during production asked Yeah, but what are the actual rules? How does this work?, Krasinski said Who cares? This is a movie about family! Think of the children!

At which point logic went pretty much the way it usually does, when someone says that.

Turns out it was just more Spielberg after all.


[1] I will confess, however, that I felt really bad when the raccoon bought it.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday April 18 2018at 01:04 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

46 Responses to ““A Quiet Place”: UNCWISHes and Dream Logic.”

  1. I heard it get savaged pretty badly on CBC. One thing hated was the characters repeatedly making stupid decisions and escaping because they were lucky. Maybe I’ll check it out on one of the pirate websites some night when I’m really drunk.

    “Anybody … would actually choose to have a baby in the first place…” Sounds like they needed Cormac McCarthy on rewrite.

    “breaking its neck and hanging it until it’s dead.” And that’s frigging awesome. It should be a blurb on FFR – I’d read it on that basis alone. (Your writing that in reference to A Quiet Place is almost enough to get me to see the movie, except for the overwhelming counterweight…)

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  2. This sounds somewhat like (too like, actually) a recent Lebbon novel called, as I recall, The Silence. Except that his covers the first couple of weeks of the creatures’ irruption into Europe, and he offers some justification for their presence (not a very good one, but the creatures are terrestrial – on the other hand they are a taxonomic mish-mash). Also the protagonists behave with a bit more sense than those in the movie apparently do.

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  3. I don’t doubt your take on the plot and reasoning flaws in the movie, although it has to be said it’s a horror movie after all–those things pretty much require a series of characters to behave stupidly. I’m pretty sure the definition of the Horror genre is “people making bad decisions”.

    I do, however, object to your use of the term “dream logic” as a pejorative here, after your recent post touting the ” New Weird” work of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I read that book as a result of your post, and another of his outside of that trilogy, and it reminded me why I had stopped reading books in that genre, which I internally refer to as “New Silly”. They tend to be constructed entirely of dream logic, albeit typically with decent prose. So I’m calling foul on the inconsistency here.

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  4. DA: I do, however, object to your use of the term “dream logic” as a pejorative here, after your recent post touting the ” New Weird” work of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I read that book as a result of your post, and another of his outside of that trilogy, and it reminded me why I had stopped reading books in that genre, which I internally refer to as “New Silly”. They tend to be constructed entirely of dream logic, albeit typically with decent prose. So I’m calling foul on the inconsistency here.

    But nowhere in Vandermeers work are the horrific things defeated by blindingly obvious means (well, perhaps in the movie, i didnt watch that so far). This is what i hate most in Horror/Zombie movies: The Capital E-Evil destroys ALL of mankind in the blink of an eye, but a few raggedy survivors manage to kill/thwart it in the span of a movie..Ugh.

    Also grated on me in Walking Dead: Sooo, the slow, shuffling, walkers manage to overrun all of humankinds advanced military, including tanks/helicopter gunships in a matter of weeks, but are easily held at bay by a chainlink fence…say what?

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  5. The K: But nowhere in Vandermeers work are the horrific things defeated by blindingly obvious means (well, perhaps in the movie, i didnt watch that so far). This is what i hate most in Horror/Zombie movies: The Capital E-Evil destroys ALL of mankind in the blink of an eye, but a few raggedy survivors manage to kill/thwart it in the span of a movie..Ugh.

    Horror/disaster fiction requires everyone to be as stupid as possible. Because a more realistic outcome where events unfold somewhere in between the worst case scenario and “hunky dory” doesn’t make for a good story. That’s just normal life.

    Regardless, dumb plotting isn’t what I’m talking about. I was referring specifically to the accusation of “dream logic” where completely nonsensical and fantastic things, not grounded in any recognizable reality, happen for no other reason than the story requires them to. I’m not talking about characters making implausibly poor decisions–I’m talking about a character suddenly remembering they’re a unicorn with no apparent explanation.

    Example. In Vendermeer’s Borne, a story about a couple in a dystopian (yawn) city ruled by a Kong-sized bear, who adopt the creature from John Carpenter’s The Thing as a child. At some point, the giant bear gains the ability to fly, with no token explanation as to why this is possible. Now, I know what you’re thinking–I’m some kind of hard science Neil Degrasse Tyson captain buzzkill complaining that a bear that size wouldn’t be able to support its own weight, but that’s not so. I’m perfectly capable of accepting a an internal logic for why something is happening for the sake of the story if it’s offered (while muttering slightly under my breath about the weight thing). But Vandermeer offers nothing. Not a jet pack, not telekinesis, not a pair of colorful pixie wings. As near as I can tell the bear is propelled by a steam of pure whimsy it vents out of its ass, much like Jeff Vandermeer.

    I’m not saying Dr. Watts is wrong about the movie. It’s a horror movie, so I just assumed it was stupid in some fashion. I’m not even saying I have a problem with artful dream logic in fantasy. I just object to the inconsistency of putting your stamp of approval on a work of dream logic in one recent post, then using it to condemn another.

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  6. DA: it’s a horror movie after all–those things pretty much require a series of characters to behave stupidly. I’m pretty sure the definition of the Horror genre is “people making bad decisions”.

    Four words for you, DA: “John Carpenter’s The Thing”.

    DA: I do, however, object to your use of the term “dream logic” as a pejorative here, after your recent post touting the ” New Weird” work of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

    Are you talking about my “Annihilation” movie review of a few posts back? Because I just did a search on that post and couldn’t find the term “dream logic” anywhere. Maybe you misremembered “dream-fever”, which was the phrase I used to evoke that weird hallucinogenic sense of unreality one gets sometimes. Nothing to do with logic, though.

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  7. Peter Watts: Four words for you, DA: “John Carpenter’s The Thing”.

    Ooh, is this Outlier Theater, where we watch films not representative of the vast majority of a film genre as a whole? That’s my favorite. Have you seen Alien?

    Horror movies by and large are about people making terrible decisions about potentially dangerous situations, being unable to run more that 5 feet without falling down, or able turn the key of a car ignition. It’s a running joke about the genre that the audience has to scream the proper course of action at the characters on the screen.

    Personally I classify The Thing as a SF Thriller, but you know. Semantics.

    Peter Watts: Are you talking about my “Annihilation” movie review of a few posts back? Because I just did a search on that post and couldn’t find the term “dream logic” anywhere.

    Yes. You did not employ that term in that article, and I never suggested you did. I applied the term “dream logic” to the books of Jeff Vandermeer that I have read, as well as more broadly to the entire “New Weird” genre. I personally feel like they’re a much more on the nose example of that term, which is why I think it’s inconsistent to laud one work of dream logic, while using it as a pejorative to condemn another.

    I have no serious objection to your new blog entry. I realize you’re saying that the inconsistencies and flaws in the movie are nonsensical to the point of being dream logic. I’m just being a pain in your ass as a punishment for tricking me into reading a couple silly books.

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  8. I’m kind of done with the whole category of “things with sharp teeth coming to eat us” movies*, it’s an appeal to base instincts, like porn, but arguably porn is at least targeting a relevant drive.

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  9. I enjoyed it more than you did, although not as much as I’d hoped, but that was largely because, as DA said, it’s a horror movie, so I told my brain to take a nap. Which it mostly did. And not just horror, but SF apocalyptic creature invasion horror, which as a genre mostly makes not an ounce of sense. If Godzilla can kill one of the MUTOs by slamming it through a building, then the army can kill it by firing missiles into it. (Actually, since that one could fly, shouldn’t it have been a MUFO?) If you can kill a giant kaiju by building a giant robot to punch it to death, etc. At least in Emily Blunt’s previous creature feature, Edge of Tomorrow, this is resolved cleverly (well, once you get past the “Getting alien blood on you let’s you control time!” thing): the aliens are fast and deadly but not unkillable, it’s just that there are tons of them and if they lose they get to call “Replay!” At the end of this movie, the fact that Emily Blunt can kill the UNCWISH by blowing its head off blows a titanic hole through the entire setup of the film, but I think that choice was made just so that the final shot would be Blunt cocking the shotgun with that look on her face.

    The scene that really jogged my brain out of its stupor is when Abbot screams to draw the creature away from his kids in the truck… and then just stands there and waits for it to kill him. Since it can’t see and only hunts by sound, how about taking a couple of quick quiet steps to the left instead and getting ready to plant that axe right where its head is going to be?

    I actually assumed that the reason Abbot banned his daughter from the basement was because the basement is where Mommy and Daddy go to have Inhumanly Quiet Sex. I also took it for granted that the pregnancy was unintended – and once they discover that she is pregnant, what exactly are they going to do with no access to medical care? And while I admired the film for being willing to go the distance in pointing out that a four-year-old would be too cognitively deficient to survive, it just isn’t willing to admit that in that situation an infant is a death sentence.

    I mean, why else do babies cry? Have you been around babies, man? That’s what they do. That’s all they do! You can’t stop them! They’ll wait for you… Sorry, wrong film.

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  10. I have rarely had a movie make me as grumpy as A Quiet Place.
    That being said, there was a newspaper that mentions an asteroid crashing into Mexico and I think that was the source of the aliens.

    Why were they barefoot? You can’t walk quietly in shoes? Or just so someone can step on a nail inexplicably sticking straight up out of a stair?
    Why do they have electric lights (incandescent ones too and not leds) and oil lamps? Just so they can knock one over to start a fire?

    How did they manage to print and distribute all those newspapers in the first place? Silent printing presses?

    Why was the daughter still wearing her cochlear implant if it didn’t work?

    So these blind aliens have no sense of smell?

    Why not make a white noise generator if you don’t want to move to the waterfall?

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  11. @DA

    Huh, i think i´ll get your point. Regarding the flying god-bear, wasnt it heavily implied later in the book that he somehow got his powers of flight from the Company that created him, and when the latter broke down for good, he also lost that ability. I mean, yes, it was a fantastical element, but i thought it was better left unexplained and mysterious than some half-baked pseudo-science explanation. Those almost always disappoint.

    As for the matter of dream-logic: When i read the Southern Reach books, they felt like a kind of nightmare. The worst kind, the one where you wake up, heart pounding, palms sweating, not sure you actually WOKE up at all. Just a hairs breath away from discovering that your reality, that seemed so solid, was just a thin veneer of paint, and under it lies some incomprehensible, screaming, mad otherness. After i read “Authority”, i was afraid to open doors for a short while, half convinced i would end up like Control, staring at a wall of Area-X.

    But there is also the other dream-logic, that makes you chuckle after waking up, because its so absurd, and obviously impossible and stupid. I guess the latter kind of dream-logic applies to most horror movies, certainly to this one.

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  12. @The K

    A half baked psuedoscience explanation is the only sort that could possibly apply to a bear the size of Godzilla. I dont mind the fantastic, but I expect to at least be grounded with some sort of internal consistency, if not actual reality. In a world where all the other characters seem to be more or less bound by the laws of physics, one of them spontaneously gaining the power of flight is *conspicuous* . It’s not a reasonable thing to hand-wave and expect suspension of disbelief to remain intact, any more than it would be for Rick on the Walking Dead to spontaneously escape from a bunch of zombies on the back of a unicorn with little further explanation. Zombies are consistent with that world’s internal logic–unicorns are not.

    I don’t want to get too much further into it when it’s off topic, and reading my rants about NW fiction is probably of little interest to anyone else. Suffice to say that was just a single point off the top of my head, and my recent dalliance with a couple Vandermeer books reminded me of why I stopped reading the dour, loosely-stitched napkin sketch throw quilts of China Mieville. If I’m going to consume some aggressively ungrounded fantasy, it better be colorful and entertaining, preferably with wisecracking raccoons in jetpacks.

    As to your point on Horror an the unexplained, I agree to an extent. The more left to the audience’s imagination, the better. Imaginations are infallible, and ultimately it’s our own minds scaring us, not what we’re watching on the screen. I dont think there’s any debate that the best “monster” movies are the ones where we actually see very little of the creature, which is why all the modern tools we have for visualizing the fantastic are working against modern film makers for the purpose of horror. Older monster movies typically had to work around their limitations in visualizing the fantastic, often resulting in far better movies.

    However, I think this philosophy often gets abused by excusing lazy writing in the name of keeping things unexplained. There’s a fine line between “intriguing unknowable mystery”, and not giving enough of a fuck to develop a consistent internal logic or persuasive causality for why things are happening.

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  13. @DA

    Fair enough, i´d say. I have to admit i am less than enamoured with the latest Mieville book myself, your description pretty much hit the nail on the head. Really liked “The City and the City” and “Embassytown”, though. I think those two offered enough of a cohesive narrative to hold it all together.

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  14. Great review, I haven’t seen it yet but plan to.

    My opinion on the ‘stupidity’ in horror/sci fi movies is that its normal. If you think about the logic too much during the movie its going to ruin it for you. Books however should do better, and they usually do. Reading a book, at least for me, is a process. I never read a book in one sitting. I like to spread it out, take time to really think about what it all means. If I watch the same story in a movie I don’t WANT to think about it, at least not until later. I just want to enjoy the ride with my belief completely suspended.

    That said I love reading reviews like this that pick out all of said stupidity, plot holes and other inconsistencies.

    So should I read the book first, or at all?

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  15. Not having seen the film I assumed obvious things like acoustic attacks had been tried and found wanting. The humans deserved to bcome extinct.

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  16. You did not fall asleep during some important piece of exposition, else we both experienced the exact same sleepiness.
    This is point by point things that bothered me with the movie (although more eloquently put than I would have managed).

    As others have commented, yes, people usually make stupid decisions in horror movies. But in this one it feels like hinges on nothing but.

    Right before she manages to kill it with a shotgun we get to glimpse a newspaper in the background that loudly exclaims “They’re indestructible!”. Seriously!?!
    And earlier we see a newspaper saying “It’s sound!”. So that’s no secret, but still no one tried to deafen them with some loud noise? Not even mask their own dwelling with wind chimes-bonanza to get som rest?

    And Lee is not only a dick, he’s a sexist dick! His daughter want’s to join him and learn how to fish, but oh no can do. But he’ll force his reluctant, younger child, who just happens to be a boy, to join him. Would it not be a good idea to learn both children to survive?

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  17. DA: Horror/disaster fiction requires everyone to be as stupid as possible. Because a more realistic outcome where events unfold somewhere in between the worst case scenario and “hunky dory” doesn’t make for a good story. That’s just normal life.

    I always thought this was the allure of horror movies, not a flaw.

    Real-life people make stupid decisions and behave inconsistently. It’s only in fiction that bad plotting and hapless characters are seen as “unrealistic”.

    Horror movies allow us to a) experience the fear of whatever the threat is in a safe environment, therefore exorcising it, and b) yell at stupid characters, which makes us feel better about all those times we tripped over our own feet or picked the obviously wrong door.

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  18. livens: My opinion on the ‘stupidity’ in horror/sci fi movies is that its normal.

    **Entirely too much text incoming**

    There may be a lot of overlap between SF and Horror movies in this regard, especially in SF movies towards the softer end of the spectrum–though I think it is far more pervasive in Horror films. Even soft SF films are generally concerned enough about their world building that they try to keep logical consistency above a certain threshold. Horror films are notorious for hazily defining their own internal rules, and then breaking them whenever it’s convenient. The horror audience seems to enjoy the ritual dispatch of idiots and assholes and will forgive much to enable the bloodletting, but a SF audience tends to show up for different things.

    Just because it may be common place, though, doesn’t mean it has to be acceptable. As Dr. Watts pointed out above, there are notable exceptions we tend to celebrate–frequently when they tend to cross pollinate with SF. The Thing and Alien are both celebrated horror films, and both of these movies make pretty good cases for characters behaving in believable and effective ways with the information they have–they are simply overmatched.

    As I said above, most strictly *horror* premises require characters to behave as stupidly as possible, otherwise the film would be real short. What’s the old Eddie Murphy bit about a sensible family moving into the Amityville Horror house? “Oh honey, what a beautiful house, and cheap too–‘GET OUT!’–too bad we can’t stay”. Roll credits.

    I always been enamored with the deliberate and character-driven way Alien solves the problem of the fact that the entire situation could have been avoided, if they’d simply followed proper procedure as Ripley wanted. Ripley refuses, correctly but also abrasively and inflexibly, to allow a crewmember who’s been exposed to an unknown biological agent back onboard. The captain pushes back in part out of concern, but also probably equal parts indignation over his female subordinate challenging his authority on his own ship. Both are reasonable, character driven positions, resulting in an impasse that Ash breaks by appearing to side with the captain, but is actually following his own agenda. How the same film maker responsible for that went on to make Prometheus, a textbook study in ostensibly intelligent characters acting in implausibly stupid fashion, is beyond me.

    The first half of the blood test scene in the Thing is a master class not only in the building of tension and misdirection, but of characters acting believably and intelligently in a threatening situation. The fact they’re still defeated there is a result of forgetting that just because you outplay your opponent, doesn’t mean they cant still tip over the board in a fit of flailing pseudopods and improbably placed jaws.

    No film is perfect. If you take a fine toothed comb to any movie you’ll find a plot gap or inconsistency you can cherry pick. We remember great movies for the preponderance of things they do well, not for the absence of flaws. However, a film can pass a certain threshold of obvious flaws beyond which it’s impossible to think about much else. That appears to be what happened here for Dr. Watts.

    The problem in any fiction, film, novel, or otherwise, is that suspension of disbelief for highly speculative environments that deviate appreciably from what we recognize as reality is very fragile. Once it shatters, you don’t get it back, and it renders everything weightless or frivolous, with no stakes–especially problematic when you’re trying to pair it with weighty emotive character elements. How can you care about what a character feels in response to a false environment where nothing matters? If your fantasy is weightless, it wont serve as an anchor for emotional weight, and everything simply blows away.

    In my opinion, even the softest of SF tends to be concerned enough with world building, that they build a logical framework that may not survive heavy scrutiny or scientific analysis, but is probably sufficient to get the audience through the story without being overly distracted by it. Dune is towards the softer end of the SF spectrum and weird as fuck, but is such a master class in world building, Herbert manages in a single novel to construct a rigid scaffolding of internal logic for a rich fantasy world of the level that took Tolkien and Martin multiple sprawling volumes to construct.

    Horror, though, arguably has a tougher job at times–it’s pretty difficult to scare thinking adults with make believe, after all (at least outside of politics). As a result it employs more cheats and shortcuts–visceral appeals to emotion rather than logic. It correctly identifies that people fear the unknown, and relies on keeping the audience confused and disorientated–often to a fault. As a result, Horror often doesn’t tend to build the same internal scaffolding that can survive a hit or two when a fantastical element pushes credulity too far. It’s prioritizing different things, often leading to a lot of hand-waving that makes it much easier for the whole thing to come crashing down when the threshold of “one challenge too many” to suspension of disbelief is reached.

    The movie doesn’t interest me in the slightest, so I cant really critique any review of it. I guess if I had one real issue with Dr. Watt’s review here, it would be where he admitted that the film worked, at least at points, on a visceral level for him. If the movie managed to build enough tension to the point you were experiencing actual apprehension due to what was happening on screen, that’s more than most horror movies manage to do for me. It may be all we can really ask of them.

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  19. Fatman: I always thought this was the allure of horror movies, not a flaw.

    I don’t consider it a flaw so much as a conceit that makes the horror premise possible. In most horror movies, there simply wouldn’t be much of a film without a series of poor decisions being made. Whether or not you consider it an allure, is how much tolerance you have for the conceit.

    Real-life people make stupid decisions and behave inconsistently. It’s only in fiction that bad plotting and hapless characters are seen as “unrealistic”.

    Don’t conflate character fallibility with *implausible* behavior. Dallas wanting access to the ship with an infected crew member out of concern and pride is believable human fallibility. The most brilliant, hand picked scientists in the world taking off their helmets in an unknown atmosphere after 60 seconds to make out with an alien creature and pushing every button in sight as soon as they see it is *implausible*, and challenges suspension of disbelief.

    Good writing lets you see the humanity and fallibility in a character. Implausible behavior directs your attention to the fallibility of the writer.

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  20. Even as a horror movie I wasn’t that impressed. They let the characters make too much noise, it would have been much more suspense if for the whole movie nary a noise was made and then someone dropped something and all hell broke loose.

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  21. DA: Don’t conflate character fallibility with *implausible* behavior.

    I wasn’t, just pointing out that “implausible behavior” doesn’t exist outside of fiction. When it happens in real life, it’s simply “behavior”.

    DA: Good writing lets you see the humanity and fallibility in a character. Implausible behavior directs your attention to the fallibility of the writer.

    The line between outright implausibility and human fallibility is pretty thin, tho, especially in horror/SF. While letting the infected character board the ship could pass for the latter, poking the face-eater with a pencil probably cannot, etc. Personally I don’t care about the plausibility of either, because I want to see a horror movie with cool splatter effects set on a spaceship, and Alien delivers on all fronts.

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  22. Fatman: I wasn’t, just pointing out that “implausible behavior” doesn’t exist outside of fiction. When it happens in real life, it’s simply “behavior”.

    Sure it does. We simply call it “crazy”, “stupid” , or “irrational” in that context. If the goal of your fiction is to portray the behavior or crazy, stupid, or irrational people, then that behavior is consistent with the internal logic of your fiction. If however, your goal is portray the behavior or more or less “normal” people, it is not. If your goal is to portray the behavior of trained scientists, hand picked for an important, dangerous mission, then when they conspicuously deviate from the expectations associated with that, it breaks suspension of disbelief.

    Aside from that I refuse to entertain the argument that because objective reality encompasses all manner of behavior, it is impossible to render things more or less realistically in a fiction. That argument goes nowhere and seeks to preemptively undermine any deliberate attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of a piece of writing.

    Fatman: Personally I don’t care about the plausibility of either, because I want to see a horror movie with cool splatter effects set on a spaceship,

    I understand this about the Horror audience, and said as much here:

    The horror audience seems to enjoy the ritual dispatch of idiots and assholes and will forgive much to enable the bloodletting, but a SF audience tends to show up for different things.

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  23. Aspects of this discussion remind me of the disdain a number of sailors had for the things Redford did in All is Lost. Was it bad script writing by someone who hadn’t spent much time at sea? Or did the script acknowledge that most of us do stupid things some of the time, through stupidity, laziness, tiredness, inexperience, what-have-you? My sense is that, except for laziness, Redford’s character screwed up throughout the film for all of these reasons, in the way that many of us would sailing solo across the Indian Ocean when we don’t know how to even properly make a Mayday call. To me, he was clearly every-man, and I empathized with the guy.

    Admittedly, reading the comments on this post, I’m inclined to think the stupidity, etc. is a characteristic of the film, not the characters, in AQP. Then again, I’d have thought that of All is Lost, too, based on my reading of sailing blogs. I’ll just have to get drunk and watch it for myself. It’s almost Tuesday…

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  24. @Phil, and preemptively at Fatman, before he forces me to make this point.

    Fiction is not a “snapshot” of reality. Fiction–*any* kind of fiction– is an intellectual construct, a necessary abstraction of reality. It’s a distillation into broadly discernible shapes to economically communicate an idea, with its own internal rules. This is especially true of a two hour movie in which there is simply no room for non-deliberate action.

    The action of any character in fiction was deliberately placed there by a writer, and serves a specific purpose, typically for characterization or plot advancement. In this context there is no room for completely fuzzy or random behavior out of the blue like there is in real life. Any action that doesn’t make sense is either something the audience has misunderstood, or something the author has failed to to lay the proper groundwork to make the case for. Many writers would argue that these things are the same.

    If it was intended that a character be prone to wildly irrational behavior, the writer would have laid the groundwork to establish this, else they risk the audience being yanked out of the narrative and rejecting it when it happens out of the blue.

    People may be crazy, but fiction is not. If it reads as crazy and arbitrary, there are problems.

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  25. DA,

    I don’t know… what I consider good poetry has a level of ambiguity where the questions it raises are more important than any answers the writer purports to have, and I tend to prefer fiction that does the same.

    Being still sober, I can’t comment on A Quiet Place yet, but the ambiguity in All is Lost worked for me. Obviously the errors the Redford character made were not sufficiently presaged for a lot of sailors (armchair or otherwise) to interpret his actions as character development rather than ignorance on the writer’s part, but for me the mistakes the character makes seem completely in keeping with a person who lacks experience (and, with his SOS call, basic knowledge) but has the desire to sail the world’s oceans. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the writer actually did have his head up his ass, but seen through my eyes, even if he did, it’s still a great fucking movie.

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  26. IMHO the best horror movies are ones where the characters act realistically. Sometimes that means being idiots, because people can be idiots, but if the audience is constantly correctly guessing what they should do and they consistently do the opposite that just gets boring and unengaging.

    The Thing isn’t the only horror movie that does this right. Pandorum, I thought, was quite a horror-heavy movie yet had characters not always making the worst possible decisions, for instance. Or Severance, which starts out as a British office comedy before the horror movie kicks in, and while there are (understandable) dumb things the characters do there are also very smart things they do. Or howabout It Follows, where the kids aren’t always thinking straight but are allowed by the film to intelligently investigate the rules of the horror and then plan accordingly.

    Frankly, all the *good* horror movies (at least in my own biased opinion) don’t have to rely on the characters making idiotic, unrealistic decisions to propel the plot and action.

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  27. DA: Horror/disaster fiction requires everyone to be as stupid as possible.

    Bad horror or disaster fiction requires that.

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  28. DA: Horror, though, arguably has a tougher job at times–it’s pretty difficult to scare thinking adults with make believe, after all (at least outside of politics).

    I’ve got one sentence for you.

    Imagine a sociopathic hacker who loves to fuck with people by hacking their computer and making it browse for child porn, i.e, look like a pedophile’s computer.

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  29. And that’s why I’m glad there are penile plethysmographs.

    Even then, a crooked expert witness can prevent one’s exoneration on basis of penile evidence.

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  30. Y.: Bad horror or disaster fiction requires that.

    Most horror is bad, and this is a pattern you can find in most horror. Opinion, obviously, but ostensible horror has a much lower ratio of quality to trash than most other genres. Mostly because so much of it gets shoveled out on the lower end of the budget scale. Cheap/bad horror can still be profitable, because as we established above, the Horror audience tends to judge horror by different criteria than they would, say, a drama. Even a trash horror film can still find an enthusiastic audience.

    We celebrate the outliers, but I’m still comfortable with my original generalization.

    >Y.: I’ve got one sentence for you.

    That is a worrying scenario, but it doesn’t fill me with visceral dread of the sort your typical horror movie is trying for. Making an effective (scary) horror movie for an adult audience is a tough job.

    Thank you, though, for reading through that wall of text I wrote to pick that line out. It flatters me that anyone would bother with that.

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  31. keithzg: Or howabout It Follows, where the kids aren’t always thinking straight but are allowed by the film to intelligently investigate the rules of the horror and then plan accordingly.

    Actually, I recall Quentin Tarantino calling that film out for breaking its own rules.

    I enjoyed it though, mostly for the Carpenter-esque synth score.

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  32. DA: with visceral dread

    I take it you’ve never been helping police with their inquiries, nor been very publicly shamed, or subject to vicious, widely believed rumors.

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  33. Y.: I take it you’ve never been helping police with their inquiries, nor been very publicly shamed, or subject to vicious, widely believed rumors.

    All three, but not necessarily at the same time, and not for the particularly heinous subject you suggest.

    Still, you’re suggesting a rational, real world scenario that could frighten adults, not a fantastic or supernatural scenario manufactured out of whole cloth in an artistic context. I never suggested that adults couldn’t be frightened by global warming, only that it was a tough job to scare them with ghosts.

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  34. So don’t use ghosts. There is plenty of horror to be found in the real world.

    Consider class warfare. Or the now kinda forgotten Indonesian mass-killings of communists and communist-adjacent groups.

    People usually don’t see that kind of shit coming.

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  35. Totally OT fanmail:

    I discovered blog host’s writing fairly recently. I just read Starfish, using the backlist copy on this site, and thought it holds up pretty well for a SF novel almost 20 years old.

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  36. Y.: So don’t use ghosts. There is plenty of horror to be found in the real world.

    Consider class warfare. Or the now kinda forgotten Indonesian mass-killings of communists and communist-adjacent groups.

    Not really certain what we’re discussing anymore. That subject matter would typically be addressed in movies outside of the traditional horror genre, though commentary on social or political issues can certainly be a part of the subtext in Horror.

    I kind of feel like we’re talking past each other over what was really a minor point. Maybe refresh yourself with the original point, and see if you really have any substantive objection to the notion that evoking visceral fear in an adult audience with the patently unreal can be a challenging task for traditional horror films.

    There’s overlap, and a movie can be more than one genre at once, but generally the more realistic the subject matter, and the more realistic the treatment of that subject matter, the more likely a film is to be considered primarily some other genre–political thriller, crime procedural, drama, etc, and the more likely it is to have different goals than a horror film.

    If that doesn’t satisfy whatever argument you had with the original point, we’ll have to agree to set it aside, because I have no desire to spend any time quibbling over the definition of the horror genre in cinema. Most people seem to have understood what I meant.

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  37. DA: Actually, I recall Quentin Tarantino calling that film out for breaking its own rules.

    I enjoyed it though, mostly for the Carpenter-esque synth score.

    Eh, Tarantino’s complaints seem to be about a set of rules he was inferring, nothing explicitly stated or implied by the movie itself; he’s finding it in violation of things it never actually set as rules. For example he’s complaining that in one case it just stood there, forgetting that actually this happened multiple times in the movie; it’s never established that it’s *always* walking towards you, only that it never moves faster than by walking. And some of it is just him complaining about character motivations and subsequent actions which sound like his version of the movie would have been significantly worse. I could go on and clarify but although I’m not really one to shy away from spoilers myself, I really think anyone reading this who’s looking for a good horror movie should watch It Follows ASAP if they haven’t.

    But yeah, Disasterpeace’s score is fantastic. I’m very much looking forward to the next movie by the same writer+director, which is set to also feature a score by Disasterpeace. He’s done a lot of soundtrack work for video games too, my favourite of them probably being http://music.disasterpeace.com/album/hyper-light-drifter which very much evokes the “travelling around a land strewn with the ruins of a fallen advanced civilization” vibe that the game also traffics in.

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  38. DA: Actually, I recall Quentin Tarantino calling that film out for breaking its own rules.

    Tarantino’s really splitting hairs in that article, TBH.

    keithzg: which sound like his version of the movie would have been significantly worse.

    I would bet a substantial amount of money on that being true.

    DA: I never suggested that adults couldn’t be frightened by global warming, only that it was a tough job to scare them with ghosts.

    Y.: So don’t use ghosts.

    Horror fans like horror movies for different reasons. I really enjoy the supernatural and fantastic element, and will happily overlook inconsistencies and plot holes if the atmosphere and buildup of tension are done right and the acting isn’t atrocious. Same with horror fiction – if the style sucks, I won’t be able to get into the story, even if it hits all the right plot-and-structure notes.

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  39. I guess partly we’re talking past each other because I just love being a contrarian, and partly because I don’t really get horror because for me, fear is a subconscious emotion and tense situations actually markedly improve my mental functioning.

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  40. Y.:
    I guess partly we’re talking past each other because I just love being a contrarian, and partly because I don’t really get horror because for me, fear is a subconscious emotion and tense situations actually markedly improve my mental functioning.

    Great point. This is another gripe I have with horror movie tropes–the way
    people always fall to pieces when begin pursued or in a crisis situation–incapable of running a few feet without falling down, etc.

    If you’ve ever been in a bonafide life threatening situation, you probably know that adrenaline is a hell of a drug. I wouldn’t want to perform open heart surgery or, say, negotiate an entry to the U.S. past a couple surly border guards (wink) during an adrenaline surge, but when applied towards the purposes it was intended–fight or flight–it is highly effective. Time slows down, pain is nullified, priorities become clear, the body takes over.

    If you factor out all the self-inflicted peril from alcohol consumption, my life has been threatened at least twice in situations unfolding slowly enough for it to matter (as opposed to, say, an auto accident.) Once, when being beaten by three larger men in a neighborhood at night, the flight response kicked in and I gave Usain Bolt a run for his money. Perfect form, arms pumping, not aware of my injuries, I just started running and did not stop, through darkened yards and streets towards lights and people, and not, say, into the woods.

    Another time, I woke up and the world was on fire. Our apartment was being consumed by flames, the walls already going up. I got the “fight” end of the response that time, grabbing the phone and calling 911 while rousing passed-out college era friends and roomates, bellowing through bedroom doors with the fabled “voice of command”. I even had the presence of mind to drop to my knees and move along the floor, though if you’ve ever been in a fire, this is something you’ll likely do anyway, because the heat levels in the upper half of the room are intolerable. Everyone made it out. It was easily the most useful I’ve ever been as a human being.

    So yeah, I’m a fan of fear too, when it’s applied to the purposes it was intended for a solitary human, as opposed to a herd–a mob is always dangerous.

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  41. DA: , negotiate an entry to the U.S. past a couple surly border guards (wink) during an adrenaline surge,

    Ha! I actually had to explain myself to suspicious US customs officers, unpack about 120 lbs of my stuff, explain why I had it and strangely I enjoyed the experience. They suspected me of trying to sneak into the US and get employed, illegaly, as a software dev. (I wish that were the case!). Alternatively I was a commercial photographer posing as a tourist – because I had semi-professional equipment.

    It was fun defusing their suspicions and establishing a sort of rapport (at the end we chatted a bit about military history, weapons). That at the time I was dressed like them (wearing a black dress shirt) probably helped.ň

    I didn’t have an adrenaline surge then, but I felt like it was a test. Same sort of heightened ability to concentrate and I was way more focused than usual.

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  42. I can feel something that might be described as.. horror, but usually only in the sense of cosmic or existential horror.

    When you have a revelation, or a black conceptual breakthrough. You realize how thoroughly fucked your situation is, usually through no fault of your own. Things are just set up that way, because universe has the kind of sense of humor Ted Bundy had.

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  43. DA: Ooh, is this Outlier Theater, where we watch films not representative of the vast majority of a film genre as a whole? That’s my favorite. Have you seen Alien?

    Why, yes. That’s the movie where Parker, in search of a toothy parasitic alien that has just erupted from Kane’s chest, sends Brett off to find te ship’s cat all alone

    DA: Horror movies by and large are about people making terrible decisions about potentially dangerous situations, being unable to run more that 5 feet without falling down, or able turn the key of a car ignition.

    I’d argue that’s just the “slasher movie” subspecies of horror. Stuff like “The Babadook”, “The Thing”, and “It Follows” aren’t exceptions that prove the rule; they’re just as representative of horror, just a different kind thereof.

    And as for classifying “The thing”, sure, call it a thriller. I call it science fiction. I don’t think any of these terms are exclusive.

    PhilRM: I also took it for granted that the pregnancy was unintended – and once they discover that she is pregnant, what exactly are they going to do with no access to medical care?

    I dunno. I’d say one of the few good things about this particular post-apocalypse is that free birth control will just be lying around for the taking at every Shopper’s Drug Mart. So what kind of idiots would get pregnant in the first place?

    Y.:
    So don’t use ghosts. There is plenty of horror to be found in the real world.

    Consider class warfare. Or the now kinda forgotten Indonesian mass-killings of communists and communist-adjacent groups.

    People usually don’t see that kind of shit coming.

    Yeah, but now you’ve widened the definition of “horror” to the point where it doesn’t have much functional utility. Everyone who writes about politics, science, or environmental issues becomes a horror writer by definition.

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  44. Peter Watts: Yeah, but now you’ve widened the definition of “horror” to the point where it doesn’t have much functional utility. Everyone who writes about politics, science, or environmental issues becomes a horror writer by definition.

    Come on. Pinker writes about these things and he’s a optimistic. I think, that , at best we either all die or end up as willing slaves to AI. At worst, don’t get me started.

    There is no shortage of ideologically minded midwits who try to sugarcoat things.

    Literally, there are people out there who fail to see the conflict of interest that makes democracy (snout counting) an illegitimate form of government.

    Like most of them.

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  45. Peter Watts:DA:Horror movies by and large are about people making terrible decisions about potentially dangerous situations, being unable to run more that 5 feet without falling down, or able turn the key of a car ignition.

    I’d argue that’s just the “slasher movie” subspecies of horror.

    Is Prometheus a slasher movie? Because the characters in that film can’t calculate a perpendicular course to a giant object rolling on a linear path.

    Slasher movies are definitely low hanging fruit for the argument, but I was thinking of many non-slasher films when I made that statement. Several popular “haunted house” features, some garden variety creature features, and some more supernatural Carpenter films were all in mind.

    Peter Watts: Stuff like “The Babadook”, “The Thing”, and “It Follows” aren’t exceptions that prove the rule; they’re just as representative of horror, just a different kind thereof.

    Yeah, the *good* kind. Or at least the stuff that doesn’t suck as much, and so are celebrated. Personally my brain bailed on Babadook when the little kid went all “Home Alone” on his mom and rigged a sophisticated mousetrap with mallets and white gloved mechanical arms or whatever–it was essentially a cartoon at that point with no stakes. And “It Folllows” I enjoyed as a stylistic exercise and due to more than a small amount of nostalgia, but ultimately it’s mostly just “ok”. It’s telling that we’re pointing to “mostly ok” movies as an example of high water marks in the genre.

    It’s true that most of any artistic output is disappointing to some degree with the cream rising to the top. But due to the unique financial circumstances surrounding it and the fact that being a “bad movie” isn’t a necessarily deal breaker for the horror audience, there’s just *so much* horror produced on the lower end, and most of it is bad. I’m comfortable that my statement is representative of horror for the *sheer tonnage* it accurately represents.

    Peter Watts: And as for classifying “The thing”, sure, call it a thriller. I call it science fiction. I don’t think any of these terms are exclusive.

    Well, I day say SF Thriller. Pareidolic, but I believe that any movie that contains a flashing computer screen showing a simulation of the bad shit going down can be classified as a SF Thriller, though not all thrillers contain this scene. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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  46. OK Peter, give me some space

    1 – It wasn’t really just creaking, it would have pretty loud. Sound carries. And maybe the mattress did the job. They had been working hard to make that downstairs area completely soundproof.

    2 and 3 – The monster ripped a hole to get out. Derp.

    4 – They were Christian. This is a Christian movie. Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean it is stupid. Derp again.

    5 – Have you had children? I don’t think the first thing going through her head at the time would be ‘ah if only it was on my nipple, everything would be right.’ Given the father is dead, she is the next adult to protect the children (again, Christian movie).

    6 – They have a house. It takes a lot of work and a lot of noise to build a new digs next to a waterfall, and they knew the house. Mega derp.

    7 – Man, these creatures are fast, who knows how quickly they wiped everyone out? This one can slide regarding radio silence IMO.

    8 – This is the only one I don’t have an answer for. Christian family, women are innocent (note the desired roles of boy and girl?).

    9 – RE the Signs ending, his earpiece creation was a mish-mash so perhaps the random frequency it displayed was unique to it alone? Maybe it is just certain frequencies that affect them? Easy.

    10 – Their head only becomes fully exposed after the full force of the high pitched sound. Derpity derp, that one was obvious.

    Anyway, great Christian movie. 9/10.

    P.S. Love your books.

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